Our Father (Documentary) is particularly resonant given the questions it raises about how our legal system views those seeking control over their own reproductive choices, and restitution when that autonomy is violated’ Wallace wrote
WHERE TO WATCH DOCUMENTARY:
WHAT IT’S ABOUT (The movie):
After a woman’s at-home DNA test reveals multiple half-siblings, she discovers a shocking scheme involving donor sperm and a popular fertility doctor.
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
It’s been a while since I felt disgusted and angry after watching something. Disgust seems to have been the running theme with viewers of Our Father, Netflix’s latest documentary. Since it premiered on the streaming service on Wednesday, it has been trending on social media.
Produced by Blumhouse Productions, best known for its horror films, it has fittingly been dubbed a horror-movie documentary. The story very much unfolds like one, with each shocking discovery worst than the one before.
We are first introduced to Jacoba Ballard, an only child who always felt she was different. Her parents were dark-haired and brown-eyed, while she is blonde and blue-eyed. Her mother told her she was conceived via a sperm donor, making Ballard long for a brother or a sister. At the age of 35 Ballard takes an at-home DNA test and discovers that she had seven half-siblings, a number that soon started growing. Ballard and her siblings make a horrifying discovery that their parents all had the same fertility doctor, Dr Donald Cline, and he inseminated his patients with his own sperm.
The rest of the documentary follows the siblings as they investigate Cline and attempt to get some form of justice for themselves and their mothers. It really is a heartbreaking, gut-wrenching watch as you see the siblings struggle with health issues and identity crises and the mothers who were essentially violated as they did not give consent to Cline using his sperm. In a scene, one of the mothers says, “I was raped 15 times and didn’t even know it.” While each participant tells their story, the tally of siblings goes up, ending with 94 and counting. The last sibling’s story featured in the documentary was by far the biggest plot twist; Cline was her gynaecologist.
While Cline is never interviewed, we do hear his voice from recordings. I could empathise with the siblings as a viewer as we never really understand what Cline’s real motives were. Was it a God-like complex? Was he affiliated with an extremist Christian sect called the Quiverfull that encourages its followers to reproduce prolifically, as hypothesised in the film? It is mind-boggling that this man really thinks he did nothing wrong. Listening to the siblings recount their meeting with him, a pair of close friends, his phone calls to Ballard and FOX59 morning news anchor Angela Ganote, who recounts her meeting with him – he is a man who is devoid of feeling any empathy or remorse for the lives he has messed up.
The most shocking thing about this documentary is that while morally and ethically wrong, there was nothing he could be charged for legally. The siblings did manage to take him to court on two counts of felony obstruction of justice, for lying during the investigation, for which he received two suspended sentences and a $500 fine. In 2018 the siblings and the mothers successfully passed legislation in Indiana making illicit donor inseminations illegal but there is still no federal law.
I did, however, feel that the filmmaking techniques used in the documentary did lean more towards heightening the ‘drama’, which detracted from the very serious subject. For example, there is a running counter whenever a new sibling is introduced; when the number flips, there is a voiceover of a man moaning, which is very inappropriate considering the subject matter. The re-enactment scenes also leaned heavily towards the horror genre; there were set pieces that looked like pillows with scriptures embroidered on them that felt a bit overkill, and scenes of Ballard wearing a red hoody crunched over a laptop like a hacker with papers strew over a room that felt very out of place.
With that said the documentary is particularly timely as Lindsay Lee Wallace writes for Time: “In a moment when the right to safe and informed reproductive care is under threat in the US, Our Father is particularly resonant given the questions it raises about how our legal system views those seeking control over their own reproductive choices, and restitution when that autonomy is violated.”
Cline isn’t the only doctor who has done this; a title card at the end of the film reveals that 44 other doctors have been found to have used their sperm to inseminate fertility patients.
Our Father is a gripping documentary that will haunt you long after the credits have rolled